Clogged or Painful Ears when Flying, Diving or other Activities
As I sit down to prepare this post, I remember a glorious 86-degree day this past Thursday, but now there’s snow falling on recently-bloomed flowers and trees. It’s somewhat sad, since several of our favorites, like the peonies, are sensitive to the abrupt changes. Still, a new season kick-off is knocking on our door. Like me, you may be contemplating your next escapade.
As spring and summer approach, plans for travel may not be far behind for those of us with wanderlust. I wouldn’t mind avoiding air-travel this year for various reasons, including health issues. Occasionally, we have little choice in our mode of transportation.
Ears when Flying
Last year, I wrote a post entitled: “Adult Ears during Cold and Flu Season.” There are concerns regarding our ears beyond certain contagious periods of the year, whether from airflight or other adventures.
Undoubtedly there are times when our travel is essential; we simply can’t suspend the journey. However, beyond the fact that congested ears can ruin your flight (not that they are ever inviting), they can lead to injurious results. If your ears become blocked, no doubt negative pressure is at work. It can lead to pain and barotrauma (see other post), or worse cause tearing of your eardrum(s).
The bottom-line solution is that if it’s possible, don’t fly with a flu/cold, respiratory, sinus / allergy infection, or any other ear-blocking condition. There can be risks, even so far as losing hearing in an afflicted ear, either for the duration of your travels or for a longer time if not easily reversible. It was approximately 3-4 months before my husband regained normal hearing after such a flight – and he was lucky.
When we can’t avoid air travel, there are still considerations to be made and tips to ease the burden. I am sharing a few of these.
If you MUST fly, some of the common recommendations still apply. These include: chew gum on take-off and landing (or at least do something to move the jaw). Suck on hard candy or yawn repeatedly (something I find an unreasonable request). And you might consider an over-the-counter (OTC) remedy.
A frequently suggested treatment is taking an OTC antihistamine, like Benadryl, 30-60 minutes before the flight (if no restrictions from your doc, such as those due to heart disease, high blood pressure, and a few other disorders). Most often this comes in capsule form. There are many air travelers who regularly use the OTC decongestant pill or a nasal spray before the take-off and descent.
A bit-less common is a favorite of mine, but certainly not as reliably effective as is an antihistamine. I sometimes use a Neti pot (or nasal irrigation) before the flight. One reason this is less effective is that unless you do it in the airport bathroom (ewww), it’s not timed as closely to your take off as needed. It’s a minor additional preventive step.
Nose Sprays Recommended?
I mentioned Benadryl, but what about a nose spray decongestant to help shrink swollen membranes? This may allow you to more easily “pop your ears” if you like? Some travelers use a spray regularly and some ENTs prescribe it, but following an episode of Afrin ‘addiction’ in my college years, I ballyhoo a strong warning. Never use these nasal sprays for more than 3 days.
Why do I say “addiction”? They can easily make you more congested than ever, and unable to easily breathe without them. I was using it way more than recommended, just to breathe. The ability to take a full breath through your nose, which happens immediately upon the application, can quickly be gone within an hour. “Withdrawal” can be unpleasant. So, TAKE CARE.
When ingesting something as strong as Afrin for air travel, we might watch the clock for best results. While I personally won’t use it, if a family member intended to do so, I would suggest the following. Use 1 hour before take-off, and if a long tip, I hour before landing. If stuffiness continues after landing, commit to only one more application. Further than that, remember my concern about taking such a spray for longer than 3 days.
Ear Issues & Water Activities (like Scuba/Snorkel)
The advice above to plan for prevention when flying goes quadruple (IMHO) for underwater activity like scuba. IEDCS or Inner-Ear-Decompression-Sickness is similar to inner ear barotrauma (although with different treatment). Symptoms shared are hearing loss, tinnitus, and dizziness.
For various reasons, people experiencing IEDCS should seek immediate treatment in a hyperbaric chamber for recompression. It’s an emergency. With this early recompression, the ear problems usually subside.
It’s not just scuba either. Not only should divers avoid activity with previously clogged ears, I believe that we more-common snorkelers should as well. While not the same risk as severe compression, snorkelers can easily get water and bacteria in the ears, throughout the throat or nose, or can even suffer slight ear trauma from hard surf-water hits. [The latter could even cause a ruptured eardrum, just as a sudden change in air pressure from a hand slap to the ear.]
EarPlanes for the Airplanes
I mentioned EarPlanes in the previous post mentioned above. They are worthy of some more exploration. They are “pressure-filtering” earplugs designed for frequent flyers (pilots, attendants, etc.). They claim to protect the eardrum from sudden high ambient changes (ultimately resulting in ear clog or worse).
EarPlanes allow the ear to slowly adjust to pressure changes, whether those changes happen suddenly or not. The plugs are made with small baffles and contain a little ceramic filter at the center.
Cost of the Prevention
I think EarPlanes might have been more expensive at one time, but now there is NO reason not to have a pair. Even if you think their effectiveness is minimal, it’s worth the small price. You can get them online and at most drug and super stores.
I noticed that Target sells them for a mere $6.99 and promotes them as follows:
[T]he Pressure Reducing Ear Plugs regulate air pressure
during takeoffs and landings.
The sleek design of these ear plugs feature [sic] soft,
hypoallergenic latex-free silicone
that have a noise-reduction rating of 20 decibels.
The Pressure Reducing Ear Plugs are safe and comfortable for regular use,
even if all you want is a night of sound sleep.”
While it’s advised that the plugs are ”disposable” (after one outbound and return flight), that could be questionable (other than good marketing). Still, here is a company-line explanation: “During operation, air flows through the microscopic pores of the ceramic filter. Particles of smoke, pollen and airborne bacteria are small enough to eventually “clog” the filter and reduce effectiveness.” Buy the argument, or not. On the product site (in places) it says plugs good for two-weeks.
If you’ve had Eustachian tube problems related to flying in the past, this might be a good solution. I haven’t found a “generic” version, but they seem reasonable enough in price not to bother with further search.
There is another similar product called Mack’s Flightguard Airplane Pressure Relief Earplugs. The name might not be as catchy, but product (and price) are comparable.
EarPlanes for Other Activities
The use of EarPlanes for water activity is uncertain at best; detrimental at worst. Many sources will clearly state “Do not wear earplugs while diving.” I’ve seen ‘BioEars’ and ClearEars” recommended for water use and swimming, but the use for diving is unclear.
NOTE OF WARNING: I haven’t seen a reference to specific types of earplugs when cautions for diving are noted, but there are concerns. Some authorities state that normal earplugs can cause damage to ear canals or ear drums. Ear pain when diving can be from water blockage, temperature changes or water pressure. I haven’t found anything that exempts EarPlanes from this warning.
I would suspect that there could be another concern. What would keep the filter in the EarPlanes from getting blocked by water?
For a totally different (read that as opposite) view on earplugs and diving, you might take a peek at an article written by a scuba diver: Everything you ever need to know about ear problems when diving – Scuba Diving Website for Women (girlsthatscuba.com) I may not agree with it all, but she does have some good tips.
Attention-grabbing article or not, my tendency would be to consult (health) professionals before using any plugs when diving. And as an old friend of my family used to say, “when in doubt, leave it out.”
The advice on snorkeling seems different and earplugs can be recommended if you plan on staying at the surface of the water. Then you can use any type of earplugs. If you plan on occasionally diving under water, then “vented” ear plugs may help. Still, there can be the concern of a vented filter being blocked by H2O. Why bother you ask?
The ear infection known as “Swimmer’s ear” – caused by water in the ears aiding bacterial growth and leading to redness, itching and swelling – is not uncommon. If you do develop Swimmer’s ear and don’t have time to buy specialty-drops, consider a less-than-optimal alternative. Try a bit of rubbing alcohol on a Q-tip to dry up the excess water. [Yes, yes, I know, we’re not supposed to put Q-tips in our ears. So, for goodness’ sake, be careful.]
Mountain / Highway Driving
Since driving is a common activity for many of us, let me add it to the list of possible good uses for EarPlanes. On the straight-away road, and when ears are in good condition, you would generally not notice any highway issues in your ears, other than loud traffic. But if your ears are in really bad shape, you may feel a ‘pressure wave’ when passing, or being overtaken by, a large vehicle.
More concerning are mountain roads. You may be in the position of driving in national parks or somewhere with tall peaks without even thinking about the fact that you are at high altitude. Twice my husband and I have had issues caused by a quick decent while driving from areas over 9,000 ft. I can’t wait to try EarPlanes for these occasions; including one I have coming up this summer.
Movies and Music
Before Covid, we went to the movies regularly. On those regular occasions, I carried earplugs in my pocket. The movies (especially action movies) tend to be so loud, that the plugs simply mute the sound. They were a great help. Long ago I got use to using the aid in nightclubs and at concerts with loud music.
Certain special music earplugs employ an even greater reduction in noise across the frequency range. Some are even designed with special acoustic filters that can be swapped in and out according to the noise level of the venue. These are, of course, more difficult to come by, and a bit more dear. Luckily, if the little EarPlanes (or similar products) can secure a noise reduction of 20 decibels for hours on end, it’s protection to our long-term hearing.
Using EarPlanes for Max Comfort & Effectiveness
When flying, insert the EarPlanes just before taking off. Best to use the Valsalva maneuver to clear ears before insertion. (Simply pinch nose, close mouth, gently blow out with mouth still closed).
Other mechanical techniques for clearing ears (like Valsalva) were covered in the previous post.
The small devices can be removed after the maximum altitude is reached (often announced by the pilot, or tracked on the in-seat view-screen). Re-insert them again one hour before the planned-landing time.
During each step of insertion or removal, use opposite hand to pull top of your ear upward. This is a small, but particularly helpful, tip for those with small ears or big fingers.
Not every situation we face has easy solutions. This may be an exception. The preventive steps for these ear issues are pretty effective in my book. If people hear of other solutions – I’m all ears.
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